Let Everyone in Singapore Have The Right To Freedom Of Assembly
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On March 13th and 22nd 2020, two young climate activists from Fridays4Future SG, J-Min Wong and Nguyen Nhat Minh, staged solo demonstrations calling for greater commitment to de-carbonisation and fossil fuel divestment. Both were called in for questioning and had their electronics seized. On March 28th, social worker Jolovan Wham held a sign with a smiley face in support of the two activists. He was also investigated and his mobile phone was seized.
Why was this an offence?
The police said that these individuals were participating in a public assembly without a permit, which is illegal under the Public Order Act (POA) passed in April 2009. The POA mandated police permits for any gathering or meeting of one or more persons intending to demonstrate for or against a group or government; publicise a cause or campaign; or mark or commemorate any event. Prior to the POA, only assemblies of 5 people or more required a permit.
Article 14 of our constitution guarantees every citizen of Singapore the right to freedom of assembly, subject to public order considerations. The decision of the police to investigate the three individuals is unfair and disproportionate. Their actions were not a risk to public order, nor did they incite violence or hate.
Attempts by Singaporeans to apply for a permit to stage a demonstration outside of Speaker’s Corner are usually turned down, even if only one person is involved. For example, activist Rachel Zeng applied in January 2011 to hold a one-woman march on International Women’s Day to draw attention to the fact that single mothers below 35 years of age were not allowed to buy HDB flats. Her application was denied, with no reason cited. She appealed but the appeal was rejected. Similarly, in December 2018, Jolovan Wham applied for a police permit to hold a one person public assembly, to commemorate World Justice Day in February 2019. The application and appeal were both rejected and they were told to go to Speaker’s Corner instead.
The definition of 'public assembly' in the law is so broad that one individual handing out flyers on the street or collecting signatures for a petition, will be deemed to have committed an offence if they did not have a permit to do so. In 2010, an application by two migrant rights groups to distribute flyers for international migrants' day was turned down. In 2018, The Online Citizen's Terry Xu was informed by the police his plan to to collect signatures outside Raffles Place MRT station for a petition calling for parliament to be live-streamed, would not be allowed as he did not have a permit. This is despite the fact that he wasn't planning to make a speech or hold up any signs. The reach of this law is so wide that even a foreigner speaking indoors via Skype for a 'cause related' event is considered an offence.
Our ability to advocate for change and speak up against injustice are severely restricted by regulations which do not allow us to assemble freely outside of Speaker's Corner. We must have the right to do so even if such acts are uncomfortable to those in power. This is how a democratic society functions and citizens should not be punished for speaking their truths.
Why was this law introduced?
When the Public Order Bill was introduced, the then Second Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam said that this law was important because Singapore would be hosting the 2009 APEC meetings and we could not afford to have those meetings disrupted. It was also argued that the law was necessary for the preservation of safety of individuals.
While safety concerns at large international events are valid, they can be addressed without restricting peaceful demonstrations. It is entirely possible to ensure the safety of the public without imposing requirements that severely restrict the right to public assembly. Singapore also has specific laws which punish individuals for inciting violence and disorder or hate speech. These should be enough to deter such conduct.
Under current laws, an applicant needs to give 14 working days prior notice to the police before conducting a public assembly. If the permit is rejected, an appeal to the Minister can be made which may take another 2 to 3 weeks. Neither the government nor the minister are required to give you a reason for the rejection.These requirements are necessary even when one person is involved, which is disproportionate to the potential harm that might be caused and the existence of alternative measures to ensure public safety.
What does international law recommend?
International legal standards only require individuals to give notice of an intention to organise a peaceful public assembly or procession. The purpose of such a notification is to give the authorities time to facilitate the event, and not meant to be an approval process. No notice should be required for assemblies or processions that do not require preparation by the government, or where only a small number of participants are expected, or where the impact on the public is expected to be minimal. 
Protests encourage the development of an engaged and informed citizenry. It is a legitimate form of expression to show grievances, share views, expose flaws in governance and to publicly demand accountability, especially for those who are marginalised.
We urge the government to review the Public Order Act and ensure that our laws are in compliance with international standards on the right to freedom of assembly.
You can also write to your MP: https://docs.google.com/document/d/19CZlARE-zb9hfxbVLtf5fUmFlltUwH-Lp6UffHrg2X4/edit?usp=drivesdk
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